There is nothing more despicable than companies seeking to earn profit by helping to repress those fighting for freedom. Pajamas Media and other outlets hit Siemens and Nokia hard, and their complicity in the suppression of Iran’s Green Revolution ultimately resulted in an end to the firm’s business with the regime. But the problem doesn’t end there. Western companies continue to sell surveillance equipment to oppressive governments. There is no reason for this to be tolerated. They should be sanctioned and targeted by consumer boycotts driven by America’s powerful voices in media, politics, and (hopefully) Hollywood.
Take Skype. Because of its encrypted communications, it’s a favorite tool of freedom-fighters around the world, from Venezuela to Iran to China. Now, largely with the help of Western firms who put money above the freedoms that they enjoy, repressive governments are working to rid citizens of Skype’s protections.“A cottage industry of U.S. and other companies is now designing and selling tools that can be used to block or eavesdrop on Skype conversations,” reports the Wall Street Journal. For example, software is now available that can record the audio streams of a computer, including phone calls made via Skype.
After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, the headquarters of the state security agency was entered. One of the documents found was a top-secret memo dated January 1, 2011. It revealed that the Egyptian government had been trying out hacking software called FinSpy, created by Gamma International of the United Kingdom. The company offered it to the Egyptian government for a little less than $560,000, along with training in its use for four security officers. The software was used by the government to hack into Skype accounts and record the communication of users, as well as to break into Hotmail, Google, and Yahoo accounts.
In Libya, the rebels have discovered that spyware was distributed through activists’ Skype contact lists. Once targeted, everything they said and every key they hit was recorded. A Hong Kong-based company named TOM Group provided the Chinese government with filtering technology that stops certain keywords from being used in chats. Now, in Syria, hundreds of activists have been arrested in recent weeks with the help of Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces armed with Internet monitoring software.
The Obama administration has said it is committed to Internet freedom. In January, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. will help “people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters” and “stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.” Well, what’s taking so long?
The U.S. and its allies should not wait to assist democratic activists, especially those seeking to change ones that threaten us like in Syria and Iran. It is probable that the software the Iranians are using against the Syrian uprising is the same Siemens and Nokia technology they used against their own Green Revolution. Once a software is sold, it is sold.
There should be a three-track program to assist these activists. Firstly, the U.S. must declare that any company which sells such technology to repressive governments is subject to sanctioning by the U.S. government and its allies. Every effort should be made to publicize the transgressions of companies that have made such sales, perhaps through a congressional report, to pressure them to immediately cease such sales and make anti-censorship programs available to those they helped oppress.
Already, a very good bi-partisan bill has been put forth by Senator Mark Kirk and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to support the Iranian opposition. It can serve as a model for a more general bill. The bill approves the sanctioning of any company that sells items used for suppression of dissent to the Iranian regime. This includes not just tools for tracking communication and Internet activity, but equipment used by the security agencies like sniper rifles, water cannons, and batons. It also requires a “comprehensive strategy to promote Internet freedom in Iran.”
The second track of the program should provide dissidents with equipment that can defeat filtering and monitoring programs. Democratic forces must be given the ability to anonymously organize and break the information blockade imposed upon them. The funding can come out of the contributions of the U.S. and its allies to the $40 billion aid package to the Arab Spring. Officials can also help non-profit organizations dedicated to the cause raise money specifically for this effort. Sometimes, too much emphasis is put on using government revenues. American citizens are willing to donate to causes like these if asked.
The third track would be an authorization for the CIA and friendly intelligence services to actively undermine the Internet monitoring activities of regimes like those in Iran and Syria. The services can help facilitate the passage of anti-monitoring equipment into these territories and, more simply, target systems used to crush dissent. The systems can be confused, manipulated, or altogether disabled. If the West was able to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program with the Stuxnet virus, then this should be a piece of cake.
Selling equipment specifically designed to deny human rights to oppressive governments is the height of selfishness and immorality. These companies cannot be allowed to get away with it.